SA innovation scientist wins space at Singularity University, wants to cure HIV

Nick Walker, an innovation scientist looking to stem cells for an HIV cure, has won the South African edition of the Singularity University Global Impact Competition (GIC), and with it the chance to attend a 10-week course at the prestigious innovation institution.

The scientist currently works at Next Biosciences, Africa’s leading stem cell laboratory and cryogenic biobank, based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Walker completed his BSc, BSc (Hons, Cum Laude) and PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. In his PhD work he focussed on the role of the extracellular matrix (ECM) on various aspects of myogenesis.

This work culminated in the publication of “Dose-dependent modulation of myogenesis by HGF: implications for c-Met expression and downstream signalling pathways” in the journal Growth Factors. Furthermore, “Collagen IV promotes myoblast fusion in a CD9-dependent manner” is currently in preparation.

Walker is inspired by Timothy Ray Brown, a man who underwent a procedure known as hematopoietic stem cell transplantation performed by a team of doctors in Berlin, Germany and is widely considered the first person to be cured of HIV.

The procedure has not been repeated since, largely due to a lack of suitable donors and potentially fatal complications.

Walker believes that the process could potentially be made simpler using stem cells from umbilical cords. The benefit of stem cells is that they could potentially be genetically altered for the same traits as the ones which made Brown’s procedure effective. If Walker can successfully do so, it opens the way to further clinical trials.

That, however, is a long way down the road. During his time at SingularityU, he could at least get help finding the funding he needs to get started on that road.

“Some of the most promising developments in HIV research are those using stem cells resistant to HIV,” Walker says. “My idea is to use available technology to set up a stem cell bank of HIV resistant cells where these cells are stored and dispensed as needed.”

Rand Merchant Bank was the primary sponsor of the South African GIC, launched in February 2016, and as such enables Nick to attend Singularity University’s 10-week Global Solutions Program (GSP) in Silicon Valley later this year. On returning to South Africa after the GSP, Nick will have the opportunity to develop his project, supported by the SingularityU global alumni network.

The SingularityU South Africa GIC was open to applicants throughout South Africa, with a focus on the global challenges of learning, energy, environment, food, health, prosperity, security, water, space, disaster resilience and governance. Congratulations to the other finalists in the top five, who will have access to the Business Accelerator programme offered by First National Bank, the retail and commercial franchise of FirstRand Limited, which will provide business support and individual guidance for three months. The individuals and their projects are, in no specific order:

  • Bernelle Verster – Smart Wetlands
  • Neo Hutiri – Technovera
  • Pieter Botes – I’m not Plastic
  • Wolfgang von Loeper – MySmartFarm



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